A Soulful New 'Faust'

In the first act of Randy Newman's new musical-comedy version of "Faust,"there is a song called Gainesville that so plaintively beautiful it makes you catch your breath. Against a Coplandesque melody, Faust's girlfriend Margaret tells us who she is and what she's made of: "I was born in Gainesville, Florida . . . and my mother ran a cafe near the university/ And she didn't raise a fool when she raised me." A disarmingly simple lyric, it reminds you of what's routinely missing from most modern musicals: tuneful melodies twinned with words that draw on the color and cadences of American speech. Such songwriting has become an almost forgotten art. But if you'd been at "Fanst's" opening night last week at the La Jolla (Calif.) Playhouse and heard members of the audience humming "Gainesville" at intermission, you couldn't be blamed for wondering whether New-man might not be the next bright hope of Broadway.

It could easily happen. La Jolla has already enriched Broadway three times, having originated the productions of "Big River," "The Who's 'Tommy'" and the recent revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying." Just don't expect Newman to follow the feel-good tradition of most musical comedy. His outlook, however hummable, is much, much darker. In this modern version of the Faust legend, God is unctuous and out of touch, the Devil is a social climber who just wants to get back to heaven and the title character is a slacker airhead who, when the Devil offers him the old deal of earthly riches in exchange for his soul, blandly asks, "So what's the catch?"

"Faust" is Newman's first musical, but it seems only natural that pop music's most acerbic singer-song-writer would want to write for the stage. Such songs as "Davy the Fat Boy," "So Long Dad" and "Short People"--in which he vocalizes the boasts and bellyaching of misfits and losers--are two- and three-minute musical dramas. And in such song-cycle albums as "Rednecks," Newman has proved he can integrate his songs into a broader scheme. "Faust" itself has just been released as a star-studded concept album, featuring James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Newman himself as the Devil. Replete with rock parodies, ballads and gospel shouting, it's an album's worth of showstoppers.

The stage production is even more engaging. Ken Page turns in a downright omnipotent performance as God and David Garrison is a sublimely slimy Satan. They play off each other with the practiced timing of an old vaudeville team. And Newman's script, while unpolished and often skitlike, is peppered with some surprisingly subtle touches. In the second act, Margaret's reprise of "Gainesville" gets a big laugh when it turns out that this lyric is the only way she knows how to talk about herself. It's a trademark Newman touch. As a songwriter, he's always played rough, cherishing and indicting his subjects, and in the process stretching the limits of what pop music could be. Fortunately, he's doing the same for the musical theater.